The Flood

Porterville’s “Salute the Farmer” statue in North Park.(Cyrus Mojtabai-Townsend)

Forgive me for namedropping, but last week I got a call from Rick Wartzman, the nonlocal voice who co-authored “The King of California” I mentioned in the May 17 issue. Rick wanted to connect me with a couple of high school students from L.A. who are producing a short film for their senior project. The subject is Tulare Lake and how folks outside our region should think about it.

After days of trying to think of someone better, i.e., more knowledgeable and organized in speaking, I said yes. We met for the interview in Porterville at the foot of the granite statue called “Salute the Farmer,” crafted in 1976 “In Gratitude for the Good Land.” I have loved that statue since I first saw it: the pioneer sitting on his unhitched plow, holding the soil in his hands as if wondering “what have I got here?” It’s a question all good farmers ask of their soil, because in learning its requirements the farmer is repaid in produce and the land is maintained for the future. It looks simple, but the statue is a profound testament to the small, real farmers we once had plentifully here on the East Side, the farmers we will always need, we who eat.

The students were bright, open, and in awe of this place. One of the first things they wanted to know is what people here think about the flood, not just the flooding this spring but the one we sit here waiting for below the Sierra snowpack. They were surprised to learn that most of us are just as much in the dark about what actually happened and why, as well as what is going to happen (or might) as their neighbors in the L.A. Basin. They understood, though, the knowledge-obliterating effects of power brokers on the populace. L.A. was shaped by that kind of power, particularly by the Chandlers who owned the L.A. Times, who of course became part of the power-brokering empire of the Boswells. It’s not that far from Corcoran to L.A.

Their last question was “What do you think is going to happen?” followed by “What do you think should happen?” Working backwards as usual, I gave them my short course in property-weighted voting in water districts and suggested that the State should take over the Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District, at least temporarily, so that the flood water can be managed properly, filling the deepest parts of the lake bottom first, not the margins (the strategy TLBWSD employed this spring.) I mean, if Florida can take over Disney’s special district for the wrong reasons, certainly California could do so for the right ones.

Another solution, which I got second-hand from a friend on Tulare Irrigation District’s board, is that right now we could be irrigating every possible acre of the Lake’s uplands on farms in the service areas of all these districts served by the Army Corps of Engineers dams (Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern), keeping those reservoirs emptying instead of filling. Those reservoirs will have to be emptied 2-3 times before this season’s snowmelt runoff is through. We could be irrigating, not just filling the groundwater recharge basins, a plan announced by the State last week. In doing so, we could be using the cooperative nature of rural people, the ones who remember we’re all neighbors in this place, strengthening their economic condition in the process. It would also reduce the power of those who are using their wealth to build higher berms, threatening to shunt the costs of floodwaters onto those with fewer resources. 

What do I think is going to happen? I gave those students two versions, my fear and my hope. 

I fear that we will continue as we have before, shutting our eyes to who gets hurt and applying whatever charitable bandages we can afterward. My biggest fear is that nothing will change. 

My hope is that we will see this flood clearly for what it is: God-given and man-made. I hope we will begin to see our part in it and seek reform, reforms which could bring water management into closer alignment the common good and our true American regard for liberty and justice for all. I hope we will come to see that there can, and will, be justice and mercy in the Lake. May that become your hope as well.

Trudy Wischemann is a land and water researcher who writes. You can send her your flood hopes and fears c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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